Japan comes to Trafalgar Square on Saturday 5 October for the 2013 Matsuri festival – a lively, colourful celebration of Japanese food, crafts, fashion, music and dance. The London Matsuri has been an annual event since 2009 and is now in its second year in Trafalgar Square. Matsuri is the Japanese word for festival or holiday.
The Matsuri is not the first time Japan has come to London. In January 1885 a model Japanese village was constructed within Humphrey’s Hall, near Albert Gate, at the top of Sloane Street in Knightsbridge. Promoted by a merchant, whose wife was Japanese, the venture aimed to demonstrate the creative and technical sophistication of Japanese decorative art and design. “Erected and peopled exclusively by natives of Japan”, the little colony included dwellings, workshops, a tea room, temple and garden – set against a backdrop of a painted Mt Fuji.
Paying visitors (over 250,000 in the first few months) saw Japanese artists and craftsmen at work fashioning pottery, wood and ivory carvings, toys, fans, cabinets, cloisonné lacquer-work, textiles and embroidery. Displays of Japanese dance, theatre and martial arts were also programmed.
Built from imported Japanese raw materials (bamboo, woods, paper) the buildings proved singularly combustible when a fire broke out in May 1885: the village entire was consumed in the blaze. A Japanese woodcarver died in the flames and his hundred or so compatriots became homeless until re-housed by well-wishers. The promoters were not deterred, rebuilding a larger village, re-opening in December of the same year. Among the additions was a “Nippon Theatre” promising “outstanding entertainments by Japanese artistes”. The village remained in business for another two years but English music hall turns and Italian opera were staged in the theatre to sustain attendances. But, losing money, the Japanese Village Company ceased trading in June 1887.
Twenty three years later Japan was represented on an altogether larger scale at the White City in Shepherd’s Bush. The vast Japan-British exhibition of 1910 comprised an array of model villages, temples, gardens, dioramas, arts, crafts, manufactures, and martial arts displays. The venture was primarily funded by the Japanese government with the ambition of promoting a favourable public image of Japan, fostering trade, and celebrating the new Anglo-Japanese Alliance. It proved a popular success, receiving more than six million visitors in its six month tenure. Westfield now occupies its White City site but a small survivor is the Chokushi-mon gateway which was removed to Kew Gardens.